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On Friday, March 12 — one year and one day after classes first went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic — the University of Michigan announced its mostly in-person plan for the Fall 2021 semester.

So far, the plan commits to all small and medium classes taught in-person, residence halls open at roughly 80% capacity and in-person spectators allowed at athletic events, all with the condition that public health measures permit doing so. 

The Michigan Daily compiled questions from a survey we sent to the U-M community and asked University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald about in-person and remote instruction protocols as well as details on public health measures the University plans to enforce. Here’s what The Daily gathered.

In-person and remote instruction

Does U-M have any more specific numbers regarding the cap for in-person enrollment numbers for individual classes, or the threshold for what makes a “large” lecture for the remote format?

Fitzgerald did not give any specific caps. According to Fitzgerald, the capacity for in-person enrollment will be determined by the individual colleges and schools in “close consultation with the instructors teaching the classes.”

“It’s likely that there will not be one uniform size for all large classes, that will depend on the type of class or what buildings are available that meet class needs,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily.

The Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 semesters saw most classes move to an entirely virtual format, leaving many students with a new phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue,” a term used to describe the effects of excess virtual meetings on one’s well-being. 

Is the tentative plan for large lectures to remain online for public health or pedagogical reasons?

According to Fitzgerald, both public health and pedagogical concerns influenced this decision.

He wrote that the U-M community “learned a lot this year on how to effectively deliver lectures in a remote format” and that the fall will likely still require compliance with social distancing guidelines. As such, the remote format will still be effective for larger lectures, Fitzgerald wrote.

Are there any more details on an in-person class protocol as of yet?

It’s “too soon to be specific,” Fitzgerald wrote regarding further details on in-person class protocol.

The University’s plan so far has only specified that “moderate to small classes, seminars and discussion discussions” will be taught in-person, and that this could vary between colleges for pedagogical purposes. Fitzgerald said these guidelines will evolve as the University moves closer to the start of the Fall semester.

Were labor unions consulted before the plan was publicly released?

Labor unions “and many other groups of employees” have been and will continue to be consulted as the University finalizes fall plans, according to the University’s Maize and Blueprint website.

The University also specified that Academic Human Resources and Rackham Graduate School have engaged with members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization. 

Rackham student Ryan Glauser, GEO COVID Caucus Co-Chair, confirmed that GEO and Human Resources have met twice; however, he said “nothing substantial has come out of those meetings.” Glauser also said GEO has not met with anyone from the University to specifically discuss planning the semester, even though GEO has requested this discussion at both HR meetings.

“As for labor unions being consulted, that is not true. We have asked to be included, but UM has dragged its feet like it did last summer,” Glauser wrote to The Daily. “We want to be included and are prepared to be included, but UM continues to refuse basic employer-labor governance.”

The Lecturers’ Employee Organization did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment in time for publication.

In September 2020, GEO went on strike in response to the University’s Fall 2020 reopening plans. Members of GEO protested around campus to call for more COVID-19 protections and advocate for anti-policing measures. After several negotiations between the University and GEO, the union accepted an offer in mid-September, fearing retaliation and a legal injunction from the University. 

Will students and instructors both still have the option to teach or learn virtually if they require accommodations or are not yet comfortable returning to in-person learning?

Fitzgerald did not specify if there would be options to teach or learn virtually, only saying that accommodations would be considered.

“The planning for the fall term is to offer medium to small classes in a safe in-person format,” Fitzgerald wrote. “As the plans move forward, there will be careful consideration of necessary accommodations.”

In a previous interview with The Daily, Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and U-M public health official, said that “we can’t just flip a switch and have everybody be ready to revert back to life as it was,” particularly as students and instructors have dealt with “a lot of trauma” since the pandemic changed normal life.

On Feb. 12, Rich Holcomb from U-M Human Resources shared poll results that showed 87% of Ann Arbor staff would be interested in continuing to work remotely after the pandemic.

Other academic plans

Will there be a fall or spring break?

Yes — as of now. Fitzgerald, in his email, wrote that “the approved academic calendar for the coming year includes fall and spring breaks,” but acknowledged that changes could be made depending on the constantly evolving trajectory of the pandemic.

Does the University have unique plans or protocols for international students? 

According to Fitzgerald’s email, the U-M International Center will communicate directly with all international students regarding Fall 2021, but “it’s too soon to know what those requirements may be in in late summer.” 

There may be additional requirements for international travel based on home country or important COVID-19 updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or U.S. State Department, Fitzgerald wrote. 

On Jan. 16, the first case of the new B.1.1.7 variant in Michigan was reported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. A source close to the U-M athletic department told The Daily that the case was tied to a U-M athlete and international student who had traveled from the United Kingdom, where the new strain was first identified. 

On Jan. 23, Michigan Athletics went on a 14-day pause due to an influx of positive cases. By Feb. 17, 43 U-M students had contracted the B.1.1.7 variant.

What about study abroad programs?

“Most study abroad programs will remain on pause for the summer and it’s too soon to have any specific direction about fall programs,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Students will need to carefully consider the situation in individual countries before resuming international travel and U-M program administrators will continue to monitor the latest developments.”

The day after classes first moved online at the start of the pandemic, the University suspended all study abroad programs and asked students to return to the United States. In all subsequent semesters since then, programs have remained canceled and international travel discouraged as the pandemic continues to affect nations across the globe.

Public health measures

Could the fall plan change depending on how the vaccine rollout goes?

The University included in its March 12 announcement that in-person activities and public health measures may be adjusted if the levels of vaccinations exceed expectations. 

Currently, the fall plan assumes that all faculty, Graduate Student Instructors and staff will have access to a vaccine prior to the start of the Fall semester if they wish to receive one. The current plan also anticipates that a significant portion of students will have been vaccinated by that time.

As of earlier this month, The Daily reported that roughly 26% of the campus community had been vaccinated. On the same day the Fall 2021 plans were made public, the state of Michigan announced that all adults ages 16 and above will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine beginning April 5.

Will masks be required on campus or in University buildings?

Fitzgerald again emphasized the uncertainty of the pandemic but expressed that “it is highly likely that face coverings will remain a part of our daily campus routines in the fall.” 

Wearing a mask  is endorsed by the CDC’s official COVID-19 guidance but has been politicized throughout the pandemic. Multi-layer cloth masks have been found to  block exhalation of 50-70% of virus-laden droplets and particles, according to the CDC.

Will vaccines be mandatory for all students?

While the University will strongly encourage every student to get vaccinated at the soonest date possible, it is not requiring all students be vaccinated at this time, according to the Maize and BluePrint site.

Does the University plan on surveying its students regarding the COVID-19 vaccine before it finalizes its fall plan?

Fitzgerald wrote that there are no plans for another “broad survey or questionnaire of the student body” they are currently aware of.

Last semester, the University disbursed a “Blue Queue” questionnaire to the campus community to assess interest in the vaccine and form priority groups for vaccination through Michigan Medicine.

Will UHS or Michigan Medicine offer vaccines to students who have not otherwise had the opportunity to be vaccinated?

While students will become eligible to be vaccinated on April 5, Fitzgerald wrote that “what we do not know is how much vaccine may be available and when.” According to Fitzgerald, “vaccine supply at Michigan Medicine remains very limited at this moment.”

Fitzgerald wrote the University is encouraging all students to get vaccinated as soon as they can and explore vaccination options beyond Michigan Medicine.

On March 12, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced all Michigan adults will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations beginning April 5 — almost a month ahead of the federal government’s goal of May 1. Michigan Medicine is currently offering 4,400 first-dose appointments for the week of March 15, 2021 and has administered 75,270 cumulative doses as of March 16.

What will COVID-19 testing capacity and availability be like in the fall and moving forward?

“Weekly testing will continue through the spring and summer terms and into the fall as warranted by the conditions as they evolve in the coming months,” Fitzgerald wrote.

At the end of the Fall 2020 semester, after an “unacceptable level” of COVID-19 cases, U-M implemented mandatory weekly testing, which is tracked through the updated ResponsiBLUE app.

How did U-M choose 80% for dorm capacity? 

Fitzgerald wrote U-M chose 80% residence hall capacity based on the belief that it will best accommodate students in the fall, while continuing to reserve enough space for isolation and quarantine dorms.

“It’s possible that the percentage could change as the vaccine becomes more readily available in the months ahead,” Fitzgerald wrote. 

Will housing refunds still be offered in the event that residential halls close?

“Michigan Housing is focused on the planning for the return to closer-to-normal occupancy in the fall,” Fitzgerald wrote in his email. “They will be prepared to pivot as conditions warrant.”

Daily Staff Reporters Jared Dougall and Julianna Morano can be reached at jdougall@umich.edu and jucomora@umich.edu. 

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